Magazine article Natural History

A Cerion for Christopher

Magazine article Natural History

A Cerion for Christopher

Article excerpt

If China had promoted, rather than intentionally suppressed, the technology of oceanic transport and navigation, the cardinal theme for the second half of our millennium might well have been eastward, rather than westward, expansion into the New World. We can only speculate about the enormously different consequences of such an alternative, but unrealized, history. Would Asian mariners have followed a path of conquest in the Western sense? Would their closer ethnic tie to Native Americans (who had migrated from Asia) have made any difference in treatment and relationship? At the very least, I suppose, any modern chronicler for a magazine printed on the American east coast would be writing this article either in a Native American tongue or in some derivative of Mandarin.

But China did not move east, so Christopher Columbus sailed west, greedy to find the gold of Cathay and the courts of the Grand Khan as described by his countryman Marco Polo, who had traveled by different means and from the other direction. And Columbus encountered an entire world in between, blocking his way.

I can think of no other historical episode more portentous, or more replete with both glory and horror, than the Western conquest of America. Since we can neither undo an event of such magnitude nor hope for any explanation under laws of nature that enjoined the actual outcome, we can only chronicle the events as they occurred, search for patterns, and seek understanding. When dense narrative of this sort becomes a primary method of analysis, detail assumes unusual importance. The symbolic beginning must therefore elicit special attention and fascination. Let us therefore take up an old and unresolved issue: Where did Columbus unite the hemispheres on October 12, 1492?

Surrounded by hints of nearby land, yet faced with a crew on the verge of rebellion, Columbus knew that he must soon succeed or turn back. Then, at two o'clock on the morning of October 12, the Pinta's lookout, Rodrigo de Triana, saw a white cliff in the moonlight and shouted the transforming words of human history: "Tierra! tierra!" (land, land). But what land did Columbus first see and explore?

Why should such a question pose any great difficulty? Why not just examine Columbus's log, trace his route, look for artifacts, or consult the records of people first encountered? For a set of reasons, both particular and general, none of these evident paths yields an unambiguous answer. We know that Columbus landed somewhere in the Bahamas or in the neighboring Turks and Caicos Islands. We also know that the local Taino people called this first landfall Guanahani-and that Columbus, kneeling in thanks and staking his claim for the monarchs of Spain, renamed the island San Salvador, or Holy Savior. But the Bahamas comprise about 700 islands, and several offer suitable harbors for Columbus's vessels. Where did he first land?

Navigation, in Columbus's time, was far too imprecise an art to provide much help (and Columbus had vastly underestimated the earth's diameter, thereby permitting himself to believe that he had sailed all the way to Asia). Mariners of the fifteenth century could not determine longitude, and therefore could not locate themselves at sea with pinpoint accuracy. Columbus used the two primary methods then available. Latitude could be determined (although only with difficulty on a moving boat) by sighting the altitude of Polaris (the North Star) or of the sun at midday. A ship could therefore sail to a determined latitude and then proceed either due east or west, as desired. (Columbus, in fact, was a poor celestial navigator and made little use of latitudes. In one famous incident, he misidentified his position by nearly twenty degrees because he mistook another star for Polaris.)

In the other time-tested method, called dead reckoning, one simply takes a compass bearing, keeps track of time, judges the ship's speed, and then plots the distance and direction covered. …

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